Convicted killer Scott Peterson’s death penalty sentence was reversed by the California Supreme Court on Monday over his 2004 murder conviction of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.
The move comes more than 15 years after Laci, of Modesto, was killed. Authorities determined that Peterson dumped his wife’s body from a fishing boat into the San Francisco Bay in 2002 before her remains washed ashore in April 2003.
Scott Peterson was convicted by a jury in Redwood City. In 2005, he was sentenced to death.
Peterson’s murder conviction will remain, but the California court ordered a new penalty phase trial. It’s not clear if prosecutors will seek the death penalty again in the case.
“Peterson contends his trial was flawed for multiple reasons, beginning with the unusual amount of pretrial publicity that surrounded the case,” the court said. “We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder.”
But the state Supreme Court ruled that the judge in the Peterson case “made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection that, under long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, undermined Peterson’s right to an impartial jury at the penalty phase.”
The court found fault with the fact that some potential jurors were dismissed from the jury pool after saying they disagreed with the death penalty but would be willing to impose it.
“While a court may dismiss a prospective juror as unqualified to sit on a capital case if the juror’s views on capital punishment would substantially impair his or her ability to follow the law, a juror may not be dismissed merely because he or she has expressed opposition to the death penalty as a general matter,” the justices said.
Previously, Peterson argued that he was denied a fair trial and appealed to the Supreme Court.
In the case, Peterson reported his wife, Laci, missing from the home they shared in Modesto, California, on Dec. 24, 2002, telling police he had gone fishing in San Francisco Bay early that morning and returned to find her gone. Prosecutors argued at trial that Peterson suffocated or strangled his wife on Christmas Eve or the night before and dumped her body in the bay, weighted so it would not surface.
Defense attorney Gardner wrote in the 427-page appeal that despite calling more than 150 witnesses, prosecutors were unable to prove how, when, or where the crime occurred and argued that the conviction came amid an “extraordinary” amount of publicity.
Reuters contributed to this report.